It’s February of 2013. The temperature is a bone-shattering 15°F today. (About -10°C.) It’s so cold my eyes are watering. Now, this actually isn’t that cold by the standards of a Pennsylvania winter, but context has a way of changing how we perceive temperature. In this case, I’m standing in the kitchen, and I don’t normally expect kitchens to be this cold.
“Aren’t you worried about the pipes freezing?” I ask the owner. All the utilities are off, which is why it’s so cold in here.
“Nah,” she shrugs. “It should be okay. It hasn’t been cold enough to worry about that.”
I nod. I’ve been sort of nervous about freezing pipes since January of 2008.
She’s named Jenny. She’s got her daughter with her today, showing us prospective tenants this apartment. I take another walk through the place. It doesn’t take long. It’s small.
“We’ll have all this stuff fixed before you move in,” she assures me.
I shake my head. The damage is extensive.
|On the left are my daughters. On the right is the 80’s Bill Gates poster we sometimes hang up as a prank.|
The previous tenants were pretty standard dysfunctional white-trash troublemakers. They broke windows and tore down all the curtain rods in the process of moving out, and left a bunch of garbage scattered around for the owners to clean up. It looks like the bedroom window was broken and then handfulls of children’s toys were thrown out on the roof where they rolled down into the gutter. I find some loose Oxycottons scattered in the empty space where the stove used to be. (Who loses track of their expensive narcotics like this?) According to Jenny, it was originally just a guy, his girlfriend, and her kid. Then a brother-in-law. Then somebody’s mom.
“We’ll get a door on this bedroom for you.” She’s pointing to the small bedroom in the back of the apartment.
I walk to the back and take a look. The door is indeed missing. It’s been removed Hulk-style. There’s a half-meter triangle of wood hanging on the top hinge. The rest of the door is propped up against the wall or scattered all over the place in the form of splinters.
I look around the room and let out a thoughtful sigh. Mist billows out of my mouth and gathers into a little cloud in front of my face. I hate making decisions like this. Last time I picked a place to live it was a long, slow-motion disaster. I don’t want to rush this next decision. On the other hand, I need to make a decision soon. On the gripping hand, this feels right.
Jenny and her husband run a total of twelve properties scattered around the city. This is what they do for a living. They buy houses, renovate them, and rent them out. This means they have the tools and knowledge to run things properly. This is preferable to someone with a day job who just takes care of a single property in their free time, or (more commonly) a retired couple who don’t have the skills and tools to fix things when they break. If these people can get this place ready by March 1st then I’m confident they can show up and fix things in a timely way.
It’s been a tough search. We have a very specific list of needs:
- We need a place that hasn’t had furry or feathered pets in the last couple of years. This is tough, since very few owners forbid pets and a lot of tenants just ignore them when they do.
- We need enough space for all five of us, plus room for my home office.
- The place needs clean and stable wiring. Older houses still using their original 1940’s wiring are not good for computers. Are the outlets grounded, do they have enough capacity for this many machines, and are they in a useful location?
- Is there decent internet service available, and are the hookups located in a sane place?
- Is the owner willing to rent to a family that’s defaulting on their mortgage?
- Can we afford it? I’m being very conservative in my budgeting, because I don’t want to make the same mistake again. I want to make sure we can afford this place even if we suffer a few financial setbacks.
|Note my J.J. Abrams style LENS FLARE desk lamp. It makes the room really sleek, sexy, and hard to see.|
Some of these requirements work against each other. Places with strict NO PETS policy are usually tiny apartments. Owners with nice places are often picky about who they rent to. And places with new wiring and lots of room tend to be expensive.
I mull it over. The price is right. Jenny is okay with our history. The space – once they get it fixed up – is right for our family. There’s no (known) history of pets. The floors are all wood, so there’s not a lot for pet dander to cling to. The place looks easy to heat. On the other hand, this apartment is the second-floor of a great big old house and I’m willing to bet it will be murder to cool in the summer.
Every town has a spot where the lower-economic families cluster. The dynamics of this have always fascinated me. (I even mentioned it in the opening paragraph of this chapter of my cyberpunk book. Note that it’s not really an analysis of this phenomena, that was just me trying to set up the bog-standard haves-and-have-nots contrast that the genre is known for.) Poverty trends towards crime and decay. This means that property values go down around poor people and up elsewhere, so poor people can’t afford to live near non-poor people. People with money can afford to take care of their houses and improve them over time, while poor people struggle just to keep the roof and windows in decent condition. This feedback loop will organically create an area with crisply defined edges.
Nobody sat down and said, “People east of Washington St. will be poor people with dilapidated houses and people west of Washington St. will have cozy homes with late-model cars parked out front.” Nobody designed this. It’s emergent. Sometimes I think about how interesting it would be if there was a version of Sim City that modeled this dynamic. (And where you couldn’t just “cure” poverty by bulldozing low-income housing. That’s pretty messed up if you think about it.)
In this town, our poor area is called The Island. There are no official borders and it’s not depicted on any map, but everyone knows where The Island starts and ends. If you were to draw a border around The Island, the line would intersect this house.
“I think we’re good,” I say. This is the first place to have all of the variables line up for us. It’s not perfect, but I think it would be unreasonable to expect much better. Being on the edge of The Island has perhaps depressed the price into our range without having to make too many compromises in other areas.
My friend Ethan and his family help us move. I call Ethan my friend, but he’s really just a guy I take advantage of every couple of years. He’s bailed me out of several tight spots now and he’s never asked or even hinted that he’d want anything in return. We keep talking about starting a D&D game or seeing a movie, but it never happens. It doesn’t matter. He’s ready to go on moving day and when he shows up with his wife and kids they seem just thrilled to be out in the cold, carrying my possessions up and down flights of stairs.
|Rachel with a Minecraft Creeper style watermelon. WHAT NOW, GALLAGHER?|
The foreclosure goes through. The phone calls stop. The house goes up for auction. It’s over.
When spring comes, the old place appears in the real estate listings. A few months ago, the bank sabotaged a deal that would have sold this place for $N. Now someone has bought it and is selling it for about $N. Now, unless the new owner is a crazy person, this means that:
- $N was indeed a reasonable asking price for the property.
- The bank eventually unloaded the property for a lot less than $N.
When you buy a property, there are taxes to pay and a bunch of annoying legal fees to take care of, plus you’re going to be paying property taxes on the place until you can sell it again. So the new owner wouldn’t have bought the place unless they could be reasonably sure that could cover those expenses.
So the bank refused to sell the house for $N, but then were happy to unload at auction for much less than $N. In doing so, they foreclosed on us, which has put a huge black mark on our record and will prevent us from borrowing money for the next decade-ish. Everyone lost. In fact, this was the maximally most destructive outcome for all parties.
|This was taken a week ago, as of this posting. We’re visiting the Carnegie Science Center to get more SCIENCE! Left to right: Esther, Me, Rachel, and my nephew Dax.|
I was right. It’s murder trying to keep this place cool in the summer. The roof catches a lot of heat and it all gathers in our second-floor dwelling. The place is kind of S-shaped, so it’s hard to get air flowing from one end to the other. Other than this small gripe, the new apartment is a fine place to live.
I was worried about the space at first. The apartment is less than a third of what the old house was, but the space is divided up just right. Even though we have less space, we kind of have more privacy. Rachel can practice her piano. (And we’re even in walking distance of her piano lessons.) Esther has a spot where she can paint. I’ve got my little technology nest where I can do my thing. The serpentine layout does an amazing job of deadening noise so Heather can enjoy her Korean dramas in the living room room without driving me bonkers in the office.
The rent and utilities are a fraction of what it cost us to live in the old house. It kills me to think we struggled for all those years for basically no good reason other than my failure to accurately appraise the costs.
So that’s the story. It was strange and sometimes stressful, but in the end we didn’t come to any tangible harm. While I would have loved to avoid foreclosure, I can’t complain about how things are going. Considering I bought a house that was a bit too expensive for us and that it lost nearly half its value over a dozen years, we did really well. We didn’t go bankrupt. We didn’t lose our ability to earn a living. We didn’t lose anything important. Yes, the bank was baffling and incompetent, but they hurt themselves a lot more than they hurt us.
Thanks to everyone who stuck around and read my work over all these years. We’ve got a good thing going here.
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